By Alex Putterman, CT Insider, July 30, 2023

Over more than five decades in the Blue Hills neighborhood of Hartford, Victoria Fennell has watched the floods grow worse and worse.Year after year, water seeps into homes, residents incur thousands of dollars in property damage, public officials promise action — then the next storm arrives and the cycle repeats. These days, Fennell says, the mere threat of rain is enough to make neighbors fear for their basements.

“It’s financial, it’s physical, and it’s emotional,” Fennell, chief operating officer of the Blue Hills Civic Association, said. “And then every time it rains, it becomes psychological, because it’s like, ‘Oh my God, here we go again. How much water is going to come in?'”

Fennell’s neighborhood is relatively poor, majority Black and located in one of Connecticut’s major cities, making it exactly the type of place most at risk as climate change closes in on the state. Though hot temperatures and powerful storms threaten all of Connecticut in various ways, experts say the most dire impacts will likely hit large cities and vulnerable residents, who will often be least equipped to handle them.

Already, this summer has provided a slew of examples. Wildfire smoke from Canada was most dangerous in places with already poor air quality and for residents with asthma and other respiratory conditions. Flooding has often been worst in cities like Hartford and Bridgeport, which have large amounts of impervious surfaces. And high temperatures have been particularly scorching in urban areas, where asphalt traps heat and lack of tree cover leaves residents exposed.

Over time, experts say, these effects are only likely to worsen, as temperatures increase, sea levels rise along the coast and major storms become more common. And as wealthier Connecticut residents gird themselves in various ways — from central air conditioning systems to evacuation amid dangerous floods — poorer ones will often be left to suffer most.

The state has introduced a host of programs aimed at mitigating climate risk in vulnerable areas, but residents and activists fear the cities still aren’t ready for what’s coming. If this summer is any indication, they say, the situation is more dire than ever.

“The chickens have come home to roost,” said Sharon Lewis, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice. “We’ve been talking about this for decades, and no one has done anything to prepare people for the heat, no one has done anything to prepare people for the flooding.”

On yet another 90-degree day in New Haven, Steve Winter considered how he’d seen the climate shift over his 34 years in the region.

Yes, Connecticut has always had warm days, he said. But rarely had the state weathered a summer like 2022, when a series of heat waves — most severe in major cities — boiled residents for weeks at a time.

“It was extraordinarily hot,” Winter recalled. “I just kept thinking, I’ve just never felt as a summer this intense with this many 90-degree days.”

Winter, who was hired late last year to run New Haven’s new Office of Climate and Sustainability, was speaking from the city’s Ives Main Library, one of several locations set up as designated “cooling centers” for hot days. Nearby, residents sat at desks and scrolled on computers, seeking to escape the heat. Outside, some carried umbrellas to block the sun.

Temperatures in Connecticut have already risen between 2 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, and experts say the state is only likely to get hotter over time. According to one estimate, Hartford could experience 44 days a year of 90 degrees or more by 2050, up from about 11 a year currently.

“People have asked me, how long we have to live with this?” Winter said. “With the emissions we’ve already put into the atmosphere, we’ll be living with this for decades, and unfortunately we’ll have much more extreme weather to look forward to.”

Rising temperatures will cause disruptions in all sorts of communities but nowhere more so than in cities, where buildings and pavement absorb heat, creating “islands” of higher temperatures. Research has found daytime temperatures in urban areas can be anywhere from 1 to 7 degrees higher than in outlying ones, and nighttime temperatures can be 2 to 5 degrees higher as well.

And while city residents may need air conditioning more than anyone else, they are often less likely to have it. A 2022 report from the Brookings Institute found that central air is significantly less common among renters and low-income residents — who in Connecticut are largely concentrated in cities — than among homeowners and higher-income households.

Cooling centers, meanwhile, are hardly a cure-all. Kathy Fay, director of community sustainability at Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven, notes that the people who could benefit most from those settings often can’t get there without exposing themselves to the elements.

“In that kind of heat, you don’t really want the vulnerable people walking to the cooling centers,” Fay said. “So it’s great that they have them, but it’s not really the ideal solution.”

If Connecticut experiences a severe heat wave like those seen recently in other regions, experts say, the results could be deadly. Already, more than 600 people a year die of heat-related illness in the United States, according to the CDC, and that figure is only expected to rise in the future.

“We can expect more and more extremes in severe weather,” said Dr. Mark Mitchell, who co-chairs the Connecticut Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “And who’s going to be affected? People who don’t have their own air conditioned vehicles, don’t have their own air conditioned homes, who work outdoors.
“Unless we prepare, we can expect to see a significant amount of death from that.”

Though flooding has impacted much of Connecticut in recent years — recently devastating huge swaths of the state’s farmland, for example — it tends to be a particular problem in places with large amounts of impervious surfaces such as asphalt and concrete.

So as storms and other extreme weather events have slammed Connecticut over recent summers, the cities have often been hit hardest. In Bridgeport, chronic flooding has devastated local neighborhoods. In New Haven, floodwater closed the local airport earlier this month. In Hartford, rainwater and sewage have overwhelmed local homes and businesses.

Most of Connecticut’s largest cities still have the type of combined sewer systems that have been phased out elsewhere, meaning heavy rainfall can cause overflows in rainwater and sewage water simultaneously.

As climate change accelerates, these problems are only likely to become more common. One report released in late June warned that flooding expected to occur only once every 100 years could soon hit Connecticut as often as once a decade.

In places where flooding is already a serious problem, the possibility of a hurricane or other major storm is almost too much to consider.

“If there’s a hurricane, Hartford is going to be a city that has to be rebuilt completely, from the underground up — not just the ground up,” said Bridgitte Prince, an activist who has lobbied for better flood mitigation in the city. “It’s going to destroy everything.”

Already, Prince has seen Hartford’s flooding problem worsen. In 2021, the city’s North End found itself largely underwater following a series of storms, leading to widespread property damage. This summer, after rain pelted the area over a period of several weeks, the flooding was just as bad, if not worse.For Lewis, from the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice, the issue is personal. Last December, following a heavy rain, she found her Hartford basement flooded with more than four feet of water, the result of a malfunction in the sewage system.

Nearly eight months later, her house is still uninhabitable, and she has little faith left in the city or the local utility companies.

“Hartford is a disaster in the making,” Lewis said. “Based upon my personal experiences, there’s no way the people of Hartford will be able to recover from a hurricane and especially a flood. Because if they can’t handle what’s been happening so far, just imagine a hurricane.”

The problem isn’t just that Connecticut’s cities are more likely to flood. It’s also that residents there are often less equipped to protect against and respond to these impacts. Whereas people with resources can flood-proof their homes or escape town when a major storm rolls in, poorer residents are often left to merely hope for the best.

That’s part of why hurricanes in New Orleans, Houston, Puerto Rico and other places have been particularly devastating for poor Black and Latino residents.

“If you can leave ahead of a hurricane and have a place to go and afford a hotel or have relatives out of out of the city, then that’s a privilege,” Mitchell said. “If you can know that your street is going to be flooded and buy food to last a week until the streets are clear again, that’s a privilege.”

Kat Morris, a environmental justice activist who has lived in Bridgeport and New Haven, has seen how wealthy towns flood less and get their power back more quickly after major storms. Like others, she fears what a truly major storm would mean.

“When — and I say when — that storm hits Connecticut, it will be Bridgeport and New Haven [affected],” she said. “We cannot take that likely.”

Thanks in part to an influx of federal money, Connecticut’s state government has launched a series of initiatives to help brace cities for climate change: funding to improve storm-water infrastructure, including $86 million aimed at reducing sewage overflows in Hartford’s North End; grants to help distressed communities prepare resiliency plans; an effort to plant more trees in urban residential neighborhoods.

In Bridgeport, a local nonprofit will use a state grant for a neighborhood-level plan to reduce heat island impacts. In Hartford, the city will develop a flooding and resiliency assessment. In New Britain, officials will explore flooding solutions. In Stamford, they will look to reduce both flooding and heat risk.

For the first time, state officials say, there’s a real chance to preempt disaster scenarios, instead of merely reacting to them.

“We need to actually be proactive about this,” said Rebecca French, director of the Office of Climate Planning at Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We can’t just [treat] it as ‘get hit by a storm and then recover,’ because there’s a lot of suffering that comes along with that approach.”

Still, advocates say there’s room — and need — to do much more. Morris suggests more nature-based shoreline resiliency and a greater awareness around construction in flood plains. Lewis yearns for urban planning directly focused on heat and flooding mitigation, including new building standards. Prince wants to see more money for flood relief, distributed more urgently. Fay pitches advanced cooling technology paired with more efficient buildings.

Mitchell stresses that Connecticut must plan for not only routine flooding and slightly elevated temperatures but also once-in-a-century storms and deadly heat waves. That means emergency funds for hurricane relief, “resiliency hubs” that don’t rely on electricity and protocols to check in on vulnerable residents when temperatures reach dangerous levels.

At some point, Mitchell said, the state may need to provide air conditioning for people who can’t afford it.

“We just need to prepare for all of the extremes and educate the public about what to do in each of those cases,” he said. “There’s a lot that can be done and that should be done, but we have to take it seriously.”

Winter, from the City of New Haven, sees at least one silver lining to the series of weather and climate events that have slammed Connecticut cities this summer: The threat has become increasingly difficult to ignore.

He recalls considering this in June while gazing at a sky darkened by wildfire smoke from hundreds of miles away.

“People may have lived their whole life in New Haven and never seen anything like that,” Winter said. “It’s something like that that gets people really thinking about these really serious, cataclysmic shifts in weather. It’s very visceral, it’s very real.”